Not All Exercise is Created Equal: Is Your Workout Burning Fat?

One of my favorite parts of having an online business and an email list is getting to read emails like this. The excerpt below is from an email I received this morning and let me tell you - I was jumping out of my skin to respond.

Why? First read the email:

"I work out at a barre studio 4-5 mornings a week, walk to and from work almost every day (weather permitting, it's about 2 miles round trip) and eat significantly healthier than most people. I'm in good shape but the fat has been creeping on my backside and thighs (saddle bags) and I have difficulty losing it. Due to injuries, I can't run or do much in the cardio realm (not even the elliptical trainer) so I'm just stuck. I'm not at the point of wanting to get a personal trainer ($$$) but think my sedentary job causes much of this." - Lindsay* (*name changed)

Lindsay's email is this personal trainer and fat loss nutrition coach's DREAM - because I know I can help!

First, a word about nutrition: she mentions that she eats "significantly healthier than most people."

Here's the somewhat unfortunate truth about eating for fat loss: that doesn't matter. A healthy diet isn't always a fat loss diet. You can eat low-fat yogurt, chia seeds, kale, goji berries, and tofu and chug green juice all day long. (Seriously - if there were awards for healthy eating, you would totally win one.) 

But fat loss is a different ball game, so if your current nutrition approach ISN'T getting you a leaner, tighter body - start there. Fix that first, because nutrition accounts for the vast majority of your results. Once you have that dialed in, then focus on exercise. 


Need help with your nutrition? Book a one-on-one nutrition consult with Leslie Ann, or register for one of our upcoming Fat Loss Cooking School 1-day workshops.

When you're ready to start training for fat loss, you need to know one thing:

There are so many types of exercise, and everyone has opinions about what's best. So how do you decide when there are so many options? Spin classes, yoga classes, programs from online trainers, Crossfit, Pilates, barre, running programs - I mean, HOW DO YOU FREAKING DECIDE?! 

Here are 3 ways to know if your workout is working for you, or working against your fat loss goals.

1. Intensity Trumps Duration

Good news: When it comes to fat loss workouts, shorter is better. The longer you workout, the more you compromise intensity, and intensity is a #1, non-negotiable, MUST HAVE if you want your workout to burn fat. 

As a group fitness instructor, I see countless women making this mistake in the gym: 

Teaching or taking two, sometimes three, group fitness classes in a row, thinking that more exercise is better because it burns more calories.

Sure, your back-to-back workouts might burn hundreds of calories according to your FitBit, but not all calories are from fat. 

Calories are units of energy, and your body doesn't just use fat for energy. It can also burn muscle through a process known as catabolism. Now, not all catabolism is negative (it's how your body produces energy - you need that!), but when you're enduring long periods of exercise and/or not eating, resting, and recovering properly, you're actually working AGAINST your goals. 

The longer you exercise, the less intensity you have and the more likely it is that your body is breaking down precious muscle tissue and converting it to sugar for fuel, leaving your fat stores untouched. 

If you've ever trained for an endurance event like a marathon and wondered why you didn't get leaner - or worse, your body fat actually increased - despite doing hours of exercise, now you know why. The hours and hours of cardio were burning muscle, not fat. 

If you're trying to get leaner, you're better off doing ONE workout (preferably resistance training) and giving it everything you've got versus slogging through 2-3 hours of exercise. The next time you're tempted to stay for one more class, ask yourself this: is your goal to get leaner, or is your goal to increase your endurance? If it's your goal to be really good at the elliptical trainer, then by all means, spend 3 hours on it - just understand that it won't make you leaner.

Work smarter, not just more. More exercise isn't better. It's counterproductive.


2. Calories Matter, but Hormones Matter More

HIIT is still a buzz word in the fitness industry and for good reason: 

HIIT workouts get results. 

HIIT stands for "High Intensity Interval Training": short bouts of intense work followed by periods of recovery. HIIT produces hormones like Human Growth Hormone (aka the "fountain of youth" hormone) that help burn fat and build lean muscle tissue. 

Sure, all exercise is beneficial and good for you, but if fat loss is your goal, you have to train specifically for that - as opposed to say, training for general health or training to run your first 10k. 

A true HIIT workout will last anywhere from around 20-40 minutes MAX. Beware personal trainers and boot camp coaches who label their hour-long human circus workouts as "HIIT." Many boot camp workouts are more appropriate for a border collie than a woman who wants to change her body composition (the ratio of body fat to lean mass).

If you're standing on a BOSU ball doing bicep curls in your hour-long HIIT workout - fire your trainer. If there's an agility ladder in your "HIIT Boot Camp" - just stop it right now. We can't even have this conversation.


HIIT isn't a game changer just for the number of calories that it burns. HIIT workouts change your body because of the hormonal response they trigger.  

Here's the best part about HIIT: while you can do your HIIT workouts on a track, or a bike, or a treadmill, you can also do them with weights. My favorite HIIT workouts are the Les Mills GRIT Series workouts, and GRIT Strength in particular because it's 30 minutes of fast, intense weight lifting with a barbell, plates, and body weight. You'll be pouring sweat, muscles burning, gasping for air just a few minutes into this workout - without setting foot on a treadmill. 



Can't find GRIT at a gym near you? Do it at home with Les Mills ON DEMAND.


3. If It Increases Appetite or Cravings, DITCH IT

If your exercise regimen has you burning away hours of cardio on the treadmill or taking back-to-back group fitness classes, chances are high that you've noticed a marked increase in your appetite. This is no coincidence! Long-duration, steady-state cardio (think: taking an aerobics class or doing 60+ minutes on the elliptical trainer) stimulates an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin and the stress hormone cortisol. 

Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and controls your appetite on a short-term basis throughout the day. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress and as part of our body's natural daily rhythms. You need SOME cortisol, but too much leads to muscle loss and fat storage (especially belly fat).

Can't get full? Always hungry? Is no morsel of food safe in your kitchen post-workout? These are signs your workout may be working against you by elevating hunger and/or stress hormones.

What if I told you that not all exercise makes you more hungry? When you're trying to lose fat, the LAST thing you want to be is hungry all the time, right? Resistance training and low-intensity exercise like leisure walking does not have the same impact on hunger and stress hormones.


BOTTOM LINE: Exercise may be healthy and good for the mind and body, but not all exercise has the same impact on your body. Exercising for fat loss will help balance hormones and change the shape of your body. Doing too much exercise or the wrong type of exercise will not.

Just because it "burns" doesn't mean it's burning fat.